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Our wars, our veterans | A Renton Reporter special report
Sally de Leon is animated as she recalls refueling helicopters in Germany during the Bosnian conflict of the late 1990s. More than a decade later, she sits in her kitchen at the Compass Veterans Center explaining her responsibilities back then as a specialist in Implementation Force. She got a driver’s safety badge and an Army Achievement Medal for her skills and to hear her tell it, it was exciting.
“At the time it wasn’t all that,” she said. “But now when I tell people it, it’s like ‘Wow, that sounds scary.’ Now to think about it, it kind of was.”
In the Army for three years, the 35-year-old said she endured what she calls a high of heightened awareness because she was constantly on alert. When she left the Army in 1999, she eventually plugged back into that high as a hospice-care nurse in 2005.
Her voice becomes more measured as her story progresses and she describes what led to the loss of her job and home in Burien. Today de Leon, her son Mark Sheran and daughter Bernadette Sheran call home one of the Compass Veterans Center’s 58 apartments.
Her story is just one of many homeless veterans who have lost their way and found support and housing at the center on South Second Avenue in downtown Renton.
On Aug. 16 voters countywide will decide whether to continue to support an existing Veterans and Human Services Levy, the Proposition 1 ballot measure. The levy funds capital facilities and services that reduce medical costs, homelessness and entry into the criminal-justice system, with half the proceeds supporting veterans and their families.
In effect, voters will decide whether the stories of homeless veterans like de Leon matter.
When she was discharged from the Army in 1999, de Leon really couldn’t escape the military. Married to another service member, she was still living by the restrictions and routines of military life.
She went to school at Columbus Technical College in Georgia to become a registered nurse. However, that schooling was interrupted by a move to Maryland in 2001 due to her husband’s enlistment and her second pregnancy.
She enrolled in the two-year nursing program at Howard Community College in Maryland. During this time, de Leon was in an abusive relationship, she said, and she could not complete the course. Instead, she took an eight-week course in the summer and pleaded her case to the school board to become a licensed practical nurse.
In 2005 she started work as a hospice nurse. She excelled; although she describes herself as a talkative person, she said she was a good active listener.
“I was able to appeal to people who were about to lose someone and I kept it real with them,” de Leon said.
Performing well on the job, but troubled at home, she got a divorce from her husband in 2007.
Stress takes hold
But by 2010 the stress of her work and on-going court battle with her husband caught up with her.
It happened after de Leon was caring for a baby who died daily for two weeks while in hospice care on life support.
She had had enough, suffering a mental breakdown in 2010.
It was compounded by the fact she continued to have problems with her ex-husband, she said. She also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual trauma she said she endured during her service.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men seen at Veterans Health Administration facilities say “yes” when screened for military sexual trauma. Lasting effects include ailments like feelings of numbness, physical health problems and problems with relationships.
Unable to work after her breakdown, she and her two children existed on child support and her military benefits. De Leon watched as first her car and then her house were taken from her. At the time of her divorce, she had an adjustable rate mortgage that increased after three years. She went from paying $1,600 a month to $2,600 a month in three years.
In 2010 she couldn’t keep up with her monthly payments because she had to pay more than $3,000 in housing and food for her family.
“Dealing with hospice, dealing with losing my house and the bankruptcy and the foreclosure and then my ex-husband – so I was losing my health,” de Leon said.
Survival mode kicked in and she reached out to the King County Veterans Assistance Program in Seattle. They guided her to the Compass Veterans Center in Renton, which was in the final stages of being developed.
The King County Veterans Assistance Program paid for her deposit and first month’s rent. She would be responsible for giving a third of her income as payment for rent.
De Leon and her family narrowly escaped sleeping on the street or in a hotel. They squatted in their now-foreclosed house for a week and in that same timeframe were given keys to their new apartment at the center.
She and her family have lived at the Compass Center since October. Fully furnished, her apartment was like “coming into a Residence Inn,” she said.
A case manager
At the Compass Veterans Center she has a case manager who helps her with her budget and to hold her financially accountable. Even more important, she said, she has weekly mental-health therapy sessions. This is something she can’t get at the VA Hospital on a weekly basis because they don’t have enough staff, she said.
De Leon is able to work on her symptoms and goals weekly at the Compass Center.
She was given a computer and has access to career planning through the center’s Career Connection. De Leon also likes that she can go to the Renton Salvation Army Food Bank, which is nearby.
“Being here is actually a huge change, because I never expected to get all the help that I was able to get here,” she said.
Now de Leon is in school full-time on military vocational rehabilitation. She is studying to be a paralegal and plans to graduate from Highline Community College in December.
It usually takes veterans about two years to find permanent housing. De Leon is staying in one of the 36 units at the center reserved for certain grant recipients through the VA. The other 22 units are permanent housing offered through the VA, Renton Housing and King County Housing Authority called Project Based VASH (Veterans Administration Supportive Housing).
The Compass Center has stable funding now, but future programming could be affected by whether or not Proposition No. 1 is approved, said Denise Missak, program manager for the center.
Supportive services that veterans receive while they also stay at the center are funded through King County.
De Leon is not sure how long she’ll need to stay at the Compass Veterans Center; she hopes to get a county or federal government job after she graduates.
And, if that option doesn’t work out, she might even consider going to law school.
The need through their eyes
Veterans of America’s wars tell vivid stories.
It’s those stories through our writing and their voices in videotaped inteviews that we intend to tell during the next three weeks.
This Special Report comes as voters countywide will decide whether to extend a levy to benefit veterans and human services countywide.
Those tax dollars are critical to providing housing for the homeless, including veterans, and services to those in need who simply couldn’t cope or even survive without our help. - Dean A. Radford, editor
COMPASS VETERANS CENTER SUPPORTIVE SERVICES
419 S. Second St. in Renton, Denise Missak, program manager, www.compasshousingalliance.org, 206-357-3100
There are a number of services available to veterans who live at the center:
• Veterans Administration staff located within the building
• Case management
• Mental health and chemical dependency-care coordinator
• Educational and support groups
• Employment readiness by King County Career Connections
• Mental health services and substance abuse assessments for Medicaid eligible veterans and non veterans by Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation
• Children’s programming (field trips, creative groups, outside activities)